This article was originally published in Twisted South Magazine:
My grandparents, MoMo and PoPo to us twenty-nine grandkids, were hillbillies and proud of it. MoMo claimed that the word “hillbilly” applied to a person who lived in the Appalachian Mountains and whose ancestry traced back to followers of William of Orange. As devout Church of Christ members, they admired ole “King Billy,” who ruled the British Isles in the 1600s and was a protector of the Protestant faith. Therefore, being a “hillbilly” was an honor of sorts. Never you mind what biggity people in other parts of the country thought about them. MoMo was a kind soul who forgave their ignorance.
“Lan’ sakes alive!” she would proclaim upon getting down to work. And work she did. Most people today can’t imagine a life back then, tucked away in the mountain hollers of West Virginia. Self-sufficiency, a new buzz word in our modern society, was life and breath to them. PoPo had inherited the clapboard general store in their tiny town but mostly he sold by barter, with snuff and chewing tobacco getting the most activity. The store also served as post office, so almost everybody who lived in those hills wandered in from time to time. Thus, along with the church and school, the store was a social center of the area.
MoMo raised their eight children in a wood frame house in their holler (pronunciation of “hollow,” which means a valley, for those of you not familiar with the term). She gardened; canned; raised, killed, and cooked chickens; raised and milked cows; drove a buckboard; and rumor is she had an affinity for her shotgun.
A staple food was scrapple, the making of which she passed on to some of us granddaughters because she couldn’t imagine we’d make it through life without knowing how to feed our families. One quart of water, about half a pound of sausage (or whatever meat you have around the farm that you can grind up), salt to taste, and a bunch of yellow cornmeal. If you’ve made your own cornmeal all the better. But let’s assume you have not, so store-boughten will have to do. Crush the meat in the water, boil for about five minutes, and then thicken with cornmeal until it just barely gets hard to stir. “Turn into” a bread pan and let cool overnight. In the morning, turn it out of the pan, slice it, and fry in a smidgen of lard. Slather with butter and even sorghums, if you wish. Don’t worry about calories and cholesterol as they hadn’t been discovered yet when this recipe was conjured up.
She also made “dough-gots,” a special treat. She’d let her bread dough rise, then would break it into pieces, flatten each piece into a patty, and fry them (in lard again, from the jar kept by the stove). Hot with butter dripping off the sides. Yum! I’d think it’s a miracle we all survived except we spent so much time playin’ with each other and fetchin’ for her outdoors – she’d keep us going until we plumb wore out – we worked most of that fat right off.
We also had plenty of fresh vegetables from the garden, and apples and pears from their fruit trees. With no chemical fertilizers – dried cow poop worked fine – we were blessed with a healthy diet in spite of the lard. In fact, we ate so many veggies right out of the ground and washed off at the rain barrel that once a year MoMo would announce, “‘Deed, it’s time to de-worm” and we’d get a spoonful of castor oil and something I forget, out of pure misery. What wretched stuff! But to my knowledge, none of us ever had any creepy crawly critters in our guts.
We were also adept at picking apples and pears without worms. All you have to do is look for a wormhole. Duh. So why is our fruit pummeled with chemical de-buggers today? MoMo never did hear tell of any such a thing and would surely proclaim, “‘T’ain’t right.”
As we grew older, us young’uns learned other life lessons from MoMo, too. She once told me about having her last baby. It was her ninth pregnancy but eighth full-term delivery. It was during the Depression. Times were hard. PoPo had traveled all the way to Texas to work in an oil field and had just hitchhiked home to West Virginia because the baby was due. He was tired, so she didn’t bother waking him when she went into labor. Instead, she sent her oldest boy to the neighboring holler to get another woman. That woman came, the baby was born, and PoPo never stirred until he heard the newborn cry. MoMo was proud of her ability to birth a baby without disturbing her work-worn husband.
It was customary to wrap a new baby in blankets and put it on a chair on the front porch so neighbors could drive by in their buckboards, take a gander, and extend good wishes to the family. MoMo was ever so proud that some of her babies, including my dad, were born with thick fiery red hair that caused quite a stir in the hills. My dad even became known as “Red.”
She and PoPo loved each other deeply. After we grew up, we were shocked to discover that our quiet, conservative, religious grandmother had been pregnant when they wed. When their children became old enough to calculate that they had only been married four months before their first child was born, MoMo told them that God knew how much she and PoPo loved each other, so He gave them their first baby right away. But after that he made them wait nine months like everybody else.
PoPo had a tattoo up his entire forearm, a hoochie-coochie girl in a fancy dress. He’d pump his fist to make her dance. We loved that! It wasn’t until we were adults that we learned when he was a young single man the dancer had been stark nekkid. But when he married grandma she made him go have clothes put on her.
MoMo was gentle but could wield a firm hand if necessary. When her two oldest boys, pre-teens at the time, got into an argument while out hunting one day and shot each other in the butts with their BB guns, she carefully dressed their wounds, to their dire humiliation, and patiently waited days for them to heal. Then they each got a whoopin’.
Their whole family had to move out of their beloved mountains toward the end of the Depression so that PoPo could find regular work. They ended up in Michigan, where I was born and raised, where he worked in the oilfields. My dad was a teenager when they made the move. Even though they tried to emulate their little farm back home with two large vegetable gardens, fruit trees, and a fenced-in area for the chickens, cows, and once even a horse, I think MoMo always missed her holler. But she loved her kids and grandkids more and was content as long as we surrounded her.
Every Michigan winter she made us knitted mittens and scarves. The little kids had to have a “baby string” that attached the two mittens and was strung through the arms of their coats to make sure the mittens wouldn’t get lost. Well, a sign of growing up was to outgrow the need for the baby string. When I turned eight I campaigned for no string and my wish was granted. Soon after I was playing on the bridge over the creek, the one my parents forbid me to go near. I picked up a big block of frozen snow and threw it off the bridge to watch it plop into the water below. To my horror, one of my mittens clung to the snow and disappeared from my hand. I watched as it swirled away below. Crying, I ran to MoMo. By the time my parents got home from work I had a brand new matching mitten and no one ever knew but MoMo and me. It was our little secret that I had disobeyed. But I had to endure the addition of the baby string for one more year. When I was ten she taught me to knit so I could replace my own lost mittens.
She also taught me to read using the Bible. I now know that was often the only book poor mountain families could manage to own and it was customary for it to be used as a reader for children. MoMo and I would sit together on the couch, the big ole family Bible spread open across both of our legs. I loved this time with her and paid close attention because this book was so important to her. She would run her finger under the words as she read aloud. Eventually, after much repetition, I learned to recognize the words. By the time I reached first grade and received my first school reader, I couldn’t believe it. They wanted me to read about two stupid kids named Dick and Jane and their dog Spot. How boring! Where were Samson and Delilah, David and his slingshot, and Moses and the burning bush? I was used to action.
When I was twelve my parents packed my younger brother and sister and me into our beat-up station wagon and we headed for the hills on vacation. We went back to the family’s original home and visited MoMo’s brother, Uncle Lemon Curry, on his peanut farm. I sat spellbound upon hearing story after story about my grandparents’ youth, and about my dad and his siblings. Relatives and neighbors came and went, joining in the telling. We heard about all the Curry folk who had spice nicknames like Cinnamon, Pepper, Sage, Thyme, Ginger, and Dill. Uncle Lemon’s many daughters once sang on Grand Ole Opry radio. We even ventured way back into a ravine to spy on Farley Rush’s still. I was cautioned not to talk about that at school, so I never did. Lots of family recipes were bantered about, with some insisting that pickled pigs’ feet (!) and wild blackberry cake with brown sugar frosting were favorites. Most of all, though, I loved the stories about MoMo when she was a girl. She had been spirited and pretty and in love with grandpa. And she still was.
MoMo taught me so much. She passed on basic skills that to her were critical to the survival of a family. In the process, although I don’t make scrapple too often and never knit mittens, she taught me what it means to be self-sufficient and to indeed survive. She taught me and the rest of our family about love.
When she was eighty years old she told me a story that exemplifies this amazing woman’s view of life. She told me about her eighth pregnancy. In her late thirties by then, she assumed that like all of her other pregnancies this one would go without fuss. So she had been devastated when she miscarried after five months. With tears in her eyes she described the beautiful but lifeless tiny body with its sweet face and perfectly formed hands and feet. She said it was then that she realized that a mother loves each of her young’uns equally, even those who do not survive. A woman’s heart, she said, makes room for a child the moment it’s conceived and nary none of her other children can ever fill that child’s special space. So no matter if a woman has a passel of kids, no child can fill another’s place in her heart. And if a child doesn’t make it, the mother will never disremember it and will always miss it, no matter how much she loves and enjoys her other young’uns. At her advanced age when she told me this story, MoMo was happy at the thought of soon being able to be with her lost child in the hereafter. “It’s nigh on time for me to hold that baby,” she said.
“‘Deed,” she had the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever known. I’ve been blessed to have had a grandma like that, a petite, poor, hillbilly woman who may not have been well educated or well versed in the ways of society, but I learned more from her love than I could possibly have ever learned any other way. It’s a reminder to us all of what truly matters.
Every time I do make scrapple I think about that. I cook it up remembering how important it was to her that I know how to do this and that it be shared with love. Thus, I offer the recipe and ‘deed this entire story to you in the spirit of MoMo’s love. May you feel that love in your heart.
I know I do.